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How Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ilwad Elman has left her mark on Somalia—and the world

Friday October 1, 2021

Energy pulses outside Mogadishu’s airport terminal, a commotion of horns and shouting, security checkpoints, armoured cars, taxis and, just outside the gates, a dizzying number of auto rickshaws known as “tuk-tuks.”

It is the summer of 2019 as Masai Ujiri, along with a team from his non-profit organization, Giants of Africa, strides into this scene.

The Raptors president is fresh off his NBA championship win, which sent tens of thousands into the streets across Canada to celebrate, and this is Ujiri’s first trip to Somalia. It is quite unlike anywhere else he had been: “When you come out of the airport it is so dramatic,” he told me in a recent interview. “It gives you this rush.”

But just a short drive later, Ujiri arrives at a very different spot, an oasis of calm behind the doors of the human rights organization Elman Peace. Seated cross-legged in neat rows are Somali girls, beaming up at their six-foot-five guest. And standing with them, arms open and matching the children’s grins, is a fellow Canadian, Ilwad Elman.

“Everything just switched for me,” recalls Ujiri, who grew up in Nigeria. “Seeing all those girls and getting a hug from Ilwad and her mom, it was unbelievable. Really, they are two of the biggest things that have happened to me in my lifetime—winning the NBA championship and going to Mogadishu.” That moment, and the collaboration between their organizations, was the start of a relationship between two Canadian powerhouses. Says Ujiri of Ilwad, “She is somebody I can truly call a friend.”

Ilwad always seems to dazzle. The 31-year-old has left her mark, whether it be addressing world leaders from the floor of the UN Security Council, working with survivors of sexual violence or posting on social media for her 174,000 Instagram followers. This year, she once again caught the attention of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which shortlisted her a third time for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ilwad was born in Mogadishu during the tumultuous early 1990s, after the collapse of Siad Barre’s government and the disastrous U.S. mission there known in the West as Black Hawk Down, due to the book and Hollywood film. Hundreds of Somalis and 18 Americans were killed as the U.S. was driven out of the region.

Her father, Elman Ali Ahmed, had been a well-known figure in Mogadishu and called the “Somali father of peace.” Educated as an engineer in Italy, he had returned to Mogadishu in 1980 to help child soldiers and orphans go to school. There’s a photo of him at the time that seems to best capture his character—driving his yellow Fiat, which he made into a convertible by sawing off the roof, with his dreads flying in the breeze and an exuberant smile on his face. He would offer rides in that car as a personal taxi service for street kids. “Drop the gun, pick up the pen” was his slogan, and those words can still be found on walls in Mogadishu today.

Ilwad’s parents made the difficult decision to go their separate ways in 1993 as civil war intensified in Somalia. Ilwad’s father stayed in Mogadishu to continue their humanitarian work while his wife, Fartuun Adan, sought refuge in Canada with their three little girls, Almaas, Ilwad and Iman. The four were in Kenya, waiting to be accepted as refugees to Canada, when tragedy struck on March 9, 1996: Elman Ali Ahmed had been fatally shot in Mogadishu by a hooded gunman. His assailant was never caught.

One of Ilwad’s earliest memories in Ottawa is of Father’s Day, when she was 10 years old. “In our class all the kids were making cards for their fathers to take home after school, and all of the kids were asking me why I wasn’t making one,” she remembers. When she got home that afternoon, she tearfully crawled into her mother’s lap. “The best way to honour him is not through a glittery card,” Fartuun told Ilwad, “but to focus and do well at school and one day be someone who helps others.”

In fact, while her father remains a hero to his daughters, it was Ilwad’s mother who was the family’s driving force. “I always felt inspired by her at a very young age to be more, and do more, with the opportunities life gives me, and it’s a lesson I carry with me to this day,” Ilwad says. When asked to describe her daughter growing up, Fartuun laughs: “Competitive. Oh, she always liked to do what she wanted to do.”

In 2006, 10 years after the death of her husband, Fartuun returned to Mogadishu to continue the humanitarian work they had started, opening Elman Peace. Four years later, Ilwad came for a visit and never left. “I would say to her, ‘Don’t come, it’s too risky, I’m already here,’ ” her mother says. At the time, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda’s East African affiliate, still controlled many of the city’s neighbourhoods. But Ilwad was insistent, says Fartuun. “I didn’t buy her a ticket; she bought it herself.”

The young woman was a natural, helping to care for and empower those at the centre, but she also got a crash course in Somali politics. Since she was related by blood to her father’s clan, she benefited from his reputation more than his widow did. That helped open doors. “I had been struggling,” Fartuun says. “And when she was there, I felt I had support.”

Ilwad’s two sisters soon followed. Her younger sister, Iman, joined the Somali National Army in 2011. Given a skirt when she enlisted, she immediately sewed it into pants. Today she is Lt.-Col. Iman Elman, one of the highest-ranking women in the Somali military. Almaas, the eldest, stayed a little longer in Ottawa, enlisting in the Canadian Armed Forces. When she returned to East Africa, she worked at Somalia’s embassy in Kenya.

Reunited, the three sisters and their mom became their own tribe, carrying on Elman Ali Ahmed’s crusade for a stable Somalia through peace, war and diplomacy. I first met Ilwad on a reporting trip to Somalia for the Toronto Star in 2013, before she had burst onto the world stage. I was always looking for positive stories to cover, a balm for all the tragic reporting I did as a national security correspondent. Ilwad already exuded confidence and compassion in her early 20s, and her optimism was palpable. “Now I can drive down the road by myself, I can walk, I can be out until 11 at night or even past that,” she told me then. “When I first came [in 2010], the curfew was at 1 p.m. Flying bullets and stray bullets were the norm. Now when I hear one shot I flinch, because I’m not used to it anymore.”

We kept in touch, finding each other in Nairobi, New York, Toronto or Los Angeles. She was always on the move, and her profile grew. The former secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, personally mentored her along with eight other youth leaders, and she was part of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. Alongside her mother, she has been honoured with more than a dozen international humanitarian awards.

Ilwad’s Instagram feed is a heady combination of posts ranging from photos of her with world leaders to music videos to pictures of her wearing everything from a black hijab to shoulder-baring gowns. “I think it’s necessary for young people to see that you don’t have to be a holier-than-thou character put on a pedestal,” she told me this summer in a Zoom call from Mogadishu.

“You know, you can bring in diversity, you can do good work, but still listen to rap, like I do.” This is one way, she says, to connect young people with humanitarian work. “We have young people saying, ‘We have ideas, we want to be involved. But we keep getting hit with needing 20 years of experience at the age of 20.’ So there’s a disconnect.”

In the decade since Ilwad’s return to Somalia, security and development have marched forward at a steady pace in Mogadishu. Elman Peace continues to grow, taking in child soldiers and single mothers, supporting women and young people, using both traditional and innovative ways to help heal. Ilwad recently discovered the healing power of waves for traumatized former fighters by teaching them how to surf.

But political corruption and al-Shabab attacks still continue. “At times, life in Mogadishu can feel like living in limbo,” Ilwad wrote in a 2016 piece for U.S. publication The World, after a deadly bombing shattered the windows of her home. “Somewhere between conflict and peace; if there was a grey area between extreme violence and normal life, this would be it.”

She ended the article by saying: “You thank God for being alive and just carry on. That is life in Mogadishu in 10 words.”

At 5 a.m. on Nov. 17, 2019, Kelly Furano was on her way to the L.A. airport when her phone rang. Furano had been close friends with Ilwad since they met by chance in Stockholm. Ilwad, she says, dramatically altered her life perspective. “I had always considered myself an activist for peace and equality among a mostly white, privileged community,” Furano told me. “This new human in my life, from the other side of the globe, seismically shifted my universe.”

They spoke almost every day and met whenever they could. On that morning, Furano was set to fly to New York, where Ilwad had addressed the UN Security Council about peace and reconciliation the day before. “ ‘Kel,’ she said. ‘They killed my sister. I’m getting out of here. Don’t come. I’ll call you later. I love you.’ ”

Ilwad’s sister Almaas, 31, had been in Mogadishu, consulting for the European Union, when she was shot while riding in a car inside a highly fortified compound just outside the airport. Married to Somalia-born Swedish tech entrepreneur Zakaria Hersi, she was four months pregnant. It’s still unclear who was responsible.

Ujiri had had dinner in Nairobi with Ilwad, Almaas and Hersi a couple of nights earlier. “We really had a lot of fun, talking about what we wanted to do,” Ujiri remembers. The next time he spoke to Ilwad, she was crying into the phone. “It’s crazy, you know, like, I just—I pray for her,” he says. “My wife and I always talk about how strong she is.”

But Ilwad says she didn’t feel strong. In fact, once the shock subsided, she felt like a fraud. “I talk about mental health . . . I believe in it,” she says. “I see it every single day in my work. But how can you constantly advocate for people to seek help and, you know, really, cognitively tap back into their traumas, when what am I doing myself?”

This summer, she wrote a piece in The Hill about her struggles since Almaas’ death. “It’s considered weak or even ungrateful to ‘complain’ or speak of the trauma that one has encountered,” she said of the Somali community. “Instead, people are encouraged to be thankful to have survived and are expected to simply move on.”

Ilwad says it was tough to write that article. “[Somalia is] the only place in the world where people tell you, ‘I know what you’re going through.’ They really mean it, because they’ve lost a mother, a brother, a sister; they’ve lost the whole family. And they’re the only ones surviving, and it’s not a competition of who suffered more, but it humbles you.”

She did eventually find the help that she encourages others to seek. Ilwad has slowed down just a bit and travels less, having realized during the pandemic that she can sometimes get more done by staying put. She does a lot of yoga and focuses on her sister and mom.

I asked her if she ever thinks about giving it all up, doing something less high-profile in Mogadishu, or elsewhere in Africa, or moving back to Canada. She says Almaas’ death made her consider that. “You know, I thought maybe our ideas were too soon for the time. I thought, really, this is not worth it. There’s only three of us left in our family now. Maybe we should just pack up and revisit this at a later stage. Then I also realized that if I was willing to sacrifice my life in the belief of my father’s legacy, the least I could do is do it for my sister as well.”


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